Friends at Malcolm X Festival. Photo by Sophia Hussain.
Malcolm X Jazz Festival: Healing through celebration
Monday, July 7, 2014

The Malcolm X Jazz Festival, held every year at San Antonio Park, could be described as a way of healing through celebration. Memorializing a person and their artistic contributions to the world can be a joyful experience, and a way to pass their memory on to younger generations.

The Malcolm X Jazz Fest pays tribute to those who inspire us. This year’s fest was dedicated to the activist and Black Arts leader Amiri Baraka, who passed away earlier this year. Malcolm X’s life left a huge mark on Amiri Baraka. It was Malcolm X’s murder in 1965 that impelled Baraka’s journey to become a Black Nationalist, paving the way for his intellectual and artistic transformations. 

There was flurry of music, dance, and art, and widespread evidence of elders passing on their art to the younger attendees. Multigenerational bands played on stage, and OMCA hosted an umbrella-making station (meant for a New Orleans inspired second line), which attracted the widest age range of participants. Many adults approached us asking, “Can I make an umbrella, too?” We equipped the Rover with a pull-out display of iPads loaded with videos of Amiri Baraka performing so that people could directly explore his work as well. 

Oakland Rover at Malcolm X Jazz Festival. Photo by Sophia Hussain.
Malcolm X Jazz Festival attendees could watch lectures and performances by Amiri Baraka on the Oakland Rover.

The Malcolm X Jazz Festival also raises the importance of creating culturally relevant art. Baraka’s poetry was novel for incorporating the black vernacular and innovating an artistic voice that was both “hood and haute,” as The New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb noted in her tribute, “In his poems, plays, essays, criticism, and fiction, he achieved an absolute democracy of language—a poetry forged in the crucible of a collective experience, a musical fusion of history, irony, and art.”

I spent the day talking to people at the festival who shared their stories of personal and community healing. A remarkable amount of the people who I talked to were healers by trade: doulas, foster care advocates, massage therapists, public health workers, faith-based nonprofit workers, and housing activists.

Maya Scott Chung, a massage therapist and a public health organizer, shared her passion for oral history and storytelling. We talked about the role storytelling and oral history plays in communities and how it can be a form of healing.

“Leadership and the process of learning to listen drew me to oral history,” she said. “It’s just really powerful. In my life, whatever it is, I tend to care about at the time I do oral history about it.”

Maya, who has worked on the Loving Quilt project and collected LGBT stories, hopes that one day Oakland will house a major archive for LGBT oral histories. She likes the StoryCorps model of oral history, in which two people are in conversation with an observer present. In this way, she sees oral history as a model for healing.

“It’s not like I’m gonna sit here and draw out your story,” she said. “It’s like, let’s talk. It’s an event. It’s a moment.”

Maya also told me that she always looks for the metaphors in healing, or as she called it, the relationship between biography and biology.

“I really like trusting that pain can be a language and offer an opening,” she said. “Trust when you have physical wound that it’s an opportunity for healing.”

Maya, whose partner has Lupus, believes that our physical wounds are often manifestations of socio-cultural, historical, spiritual trauma. While she said her partner might not necessarily agree with her, she sees Lupus, which disproportionately effects a historically marginalized population, as “a very vivid, articulate expression of internalized oppression.”

"Oakland’s diversity," she said, is "a source of healing."

“I love that this neighborhood is probably one of the most diverse places in the world,” she said. “I appreciate being a parent here and that it’s normal for [my daughter].”

Young girl at Malcolm X Jazz Festival in Oakland. Photo by Sophia Hussain.
Bonita and her umbrella.

Bonita, a case manager for Oakland nonprofit, All of Us or None, works with ex-felons to assist them in obtaining job and housing resources. 

“I think love is the main component for healing,” she said. "It takes people to help them. Everyone has qualities and we have to bring them out.”

Mayor Jean Quan spoke to me about psychological impact of segregation. She said that she often sees people organizing out of fear. 

“Healing is to bring together the history of different divided communities,” she said. “To me healing is for people to see what they have in common and to unify. And the way you heal is by coming out together at an event like this, or even going to the museum.”

—by Sophia Hussain, OMCA Community Storyteller